As Sacred Heart Major Seminary opens 100th year, rector urges ‘hope in the heart of Christ’

Msgr. Lajiness introduces 'year of prayer and thanksgiving' for seminary's centennial as classes resume at Sacred Heart

DETROIT — When the Diocese of Detroit first opened a seminary in 1919 dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, things were not easy.

A world war was going on. The economy was teetering. Rampant racism and discrimination weighed heavily on society — and even on the Church.

One hundred years later, the Church again finds itself in choppy waters. In the midst of declining Mass attendance, drops in sacramental participation and a vocation shortage — not to mention the sexual abuse crisis — the Church of the 20th century has its own challenges to face.

“Then, just as now, the Lord prompted the members of Sacred Heart to step into the boat with him,” Msgr. Todd Lajiness, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, told faculty and staff Aug. 21. “Jesus accompanies us, he abides with us, he calms us, so long as we don’t let our anxiety, inordinate fear, or lack of trust pull us away from the one who is our ultimate desire.”

Opening the seminary’s centennial year with his annual rector’s address, Msgr. Lajiness said the challenges facing today’s Church require a similar response of “unshakeable hope” in God's providence.

Sacred Heart almost didn't open, Msgr. Lajiness recalled. Three separate attempts to found a seminary in the 19th and early 20th centuries proved unsuccessful, until finally, by God's grace, the first classes were held in the fall of 1919.

“As exhilarating as it is, there can always be some anxiety, even fear at times, because we don’t know what awaits us. But we do not make this journey as those without hope,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “We do not celebrate 100 years without acknowledging that it is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who has sustained us along the way.”

It’s in gratitude to God that Sacred Heart opens “a year of prayer and thanksgiving” celebrating its centennial, which will formally kick off with a special Mass of the Sacred Heart on Sept. 27, Msgr. Lajiness said.

Msgr. Todd Lajiness, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, addresses faculty and staff Aug. 21 during his annual address, “Hope in the Heart of Christ,” to kick off the new academic year. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

The celebration will continue in October, with an academic conference “that will explore the theological and philosophical foundations of the New Evangelization,” and will also include a concert in December featuring combined choirs from the seminary and Archdiocese of Detroit and a neighborhood cookout in the spring.

The celebration will wrap up with the annual Archbishop’s Gala in June, Msgr. Lajiness said.

“In the end, these events will be wonderful opportunities for us to give thanks, to be renewed, and to celebrate,” Msgr. Lajiness said.

Increased attention to lay witness

The rector also used his address to update the seminary community about several key initiatives, including Sacred Heart’s strategic plan, which calls for increased outreach and awareness of the seminary's mission of forming priests, deacons and lay leaders in the new evangelization.

In particular, Msgr. Lajiness highlighted the success of Sacred Heart’s inaugural “massive open online courses” (MOOC), which offer free online instruction to anyone interested in learning more about their faith and basic theology.

The first course, The Beauty of Belief, offered during Lent and taught by some of Sacred Heart's world-renown professors, saw more than 3,000 people participate from 46 states and 38 countries, Msgr. Lajiness said.

“For almost 60% of the participants, this was their first online experience. And from the surveys that were done after the course, we were very pleased to find that among those for whom this was not their first online course, they expressed a very high level of satisfaction,” Msgr. Lajiness said.

A second course, The Mission of the Laity, was offered this summer, and a third course is tentatively planned for this fall.

Many who participated expressed interest in Sacred Heart’s formal degree programs, Msgr. Lajiness added, with 29 new students registering for classes this fall after participating in one of the courses.

In April, Sacred Heart celebrated its second consecutive year with a record number of graduates. The seminary expects to begin the year with 370 students enrolled for the fall term, Msgr. Lajiness said, including lay commuter students and priests studying for the seminary's Licentiate in Sacred Theology in the New Evangelization. 

Seminary formation

In addition to the increase in lay students, Sacred Heart also will see a greater number of seminarians this fall, Msgr. Lajiness said, as four new dioceses will begin sending seminarians to study in Detroit.

With new seminarians coming from the dioceses of Gaylord, Portland (Maine), Hartford and Aix-en-Provence in France, Sacred Heart will begin the year with 117 seminarians, Msgr. Lajiness said.

In his Aug. 21 address, Msgr. Lajiness asked the seminary community to come together in prayer once a month for First Friday devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a way to “pray together as a community and be renewed in our call to holiness.” (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

“I remain deeply grateful to the bishops who entrust their men to us,” Msgr. Lajiness said.

As the year gets under way, Msgr. Lajiness said increased attention will be given to seminarian formation and evaluation, especially as it relates to integrating the four key elements of formation — pastoral, human, spiritual and intellectual — into the curriculum.  

Particularly, the seminary will study how better to integrate spiritual formation with its already-robust intellectual programs, Msgr. Lajiness said.

Sacred Heart “is not simply a college or university, but a truly integrated community of formation,” Msgr. Lajiness said. Along those lines, the seminary also will explore ways to increase faculty engagement in the evaluation of seminarians, Msgr. Lajiness added.

Acknowledging the seminary’s namesake, the rector also called for the institution of a First Fridays devotion as a “new way in which we can pray together as a community and be renewed in our call to holiness.”

The new monthly devotion will be offered “in reparation for sin in the Church, in our seminary, in our own hearts, for an increase in holiness, and in gratitude for God’s mercy,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “Now, perhaps more than ever, our seminary community, devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, will benefit from a renewed and sustained devotion to his Heart.”

Other areas of focus

Msgr. Lajiness touched on several other topics in his address:

  • Work continues on the development of a new Institute for Lay Witness in the World, which was specifically prescribed by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel. Once developed, the new institute will focus on creating opportunities for missionary evangelization among the laity.
  • Noting with “deep sadness” that the country has witnessed an increase in violence and racism in recent months, Msgr. Lajiness urged the seminary community to spend time reading the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts, The Enduring Call to Love. A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.
  • The seminary plans to update its faculty handbook to include new norms for reporting sexual abuse and clearer boundaries for interactions between faculty and staff as a result of Pope Francis’ May motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi.
  • Given Sacred Heart’s multi-function use as a residential community, commuter campus and center for archdiocesan events, an evaluation of security enhancements will take place.
  • Msgr. Lajiness also announced five new faculty and staff members: Donald Wallenfang, Ph.D., a new faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts; David Zanitsch, director of institutional advancement; Jamie Gualdoni, marketing manager; Catherine Tibai, administrative assistant in the Department of Institutional Advancement; and Alex Slavsky, in the vocations office.